Resumé. More than 50% of managers report feeling burned out, a number slightly higher than employees more generally. The reasons include the challenges of the pandemic combined with experiencing three hallmarks of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and a perceived lack of professional achievement. How can organizations better support these employees? Research from Microsoft on their own workforce explores the various ways burnout can be harmful to managers and suggests five strategies to combat it.
More than 50% of managers report feeling burned out, a number slightly higher than employees more generally. The reasons include the challenges of the pandemic combined with experiencing three hallmarks of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and a perceived lack of professional achievement. How can organizations better support these employees? Research from Microsoft on their own workforce explores the various ways burnout can be harmful to managers and suggests five strategies to combat it.
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According to Microsoftseneste Work Trend Index— a global survey of workers across multiple industries and companies published in September 2022 — more than half of managers (53%) report feeling burned out at work. This statistic is staggering and slightly higher than employees in general. However, it is not surprising. Leaders have had to guide their employees through a pandemic and its aftermath, facing situations that have required them to lead with empathy while dealing with escalating demands with potentially fewer resources—all while receiving little recognition for their effort. This unsustainable situation has caused many leaders to struggle.
To reverse the trend towards burnout in organizations, it is crucial for management and HR to understand and measure the components of burnout in order to better manage it among managers.Listening to leadersis one of the ways to identify warning signs. Early work at Microsoft to learn about burnout among our own leaders highlights some areas organizations can focus on as they begin this important work.
How managers experience burnout
Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research, says burnout is a result of constantly experiencing stress at work, resulting in exhaustion, cynicism and a perceived lack of professional achievement. The reasons why these symptoms occurfall into six buckets: having an unsustainable workload, a perceived lack of control, inadequate rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, and mismatched values and skills.
Managers today are exhausted by a combination of high workloads and limited resources. While all employees can relate to this challenge, managers have the added responsibility of making sure their team members get what they need to succeed in addition to doing their own work. Some of these requirements may have changed and expanded since the pandemic as employees look for more meaning in their work and to better understand their purpose.
As leaders adapt and help their teams make an impact in a post-pandemic workplace, they need feedback and support more than ever. However, based on our research, they report receiving less coaching and development for their people management skills and less recognition from their own managers. These factors can leave managers feeling like they lack the ability to make an impact in their current roles, let alone fulfill their future career goals.
Dealing with burnout begins with understanding these signals among leaders and then identifying actions you can take. At Microsoft, our internal, semi-annual census focuses specifically on the conceptthriveand how we can help people feel energized and empowered to do meaningful work. To measure burnout as part of this measure, our research digs into Maslach's three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of accomplishment. Although our findings are not necessarily applicable to all companies, we believe they highlight some important signals that may be prevalent for managers in other organizations.
For example, we found that managers are more likely than individual contributors to experience burnout and lack of professional effectiveness. We also found that managers who manage individual contributors (ie, front-line managers) are more likely to experience cynicism than managers who manage other managers (ie, middle managers). As leaders climb the organization and as the scope of their roles increases, they feel more meaning and energy from their work, which can help reduce cynicism.
Not surprisingly, we found that experiencing burnout can lead to negative outcomes for the manager and the company, such as reduced productivity and turnover. For example, while self-reported productivity tends to be lower in managers experiencing a single dimension of burnout, it was, on average, 22 points lower for managers experiencing all three burnout dimensions.
Looking at voluntary attrition, we found that managers who experience burnout are 1.8 times more likely to leave the company compared to managers who do not. For managers who experience cynicism, this increases to 3.0 times, and those with a lack of professional efficacy are 3.4 times more likely to leave the company. When a leader experiences all three dimensions, they are 5.3 times more likely to leave the company compared to a leader who experiences none.
Mitigating executive burnout
While leaders have a role to play in alleviating burnout in their teams, their own levels of burnout are just as important. Levers we've found in our research that can help with burnout include the following:
Finding ways to connect frontline managers' work with what matters to them can help buffer potential negative effects of burnout. Managers should reflect on their roles and have open conversations with their manager about what gives them energy and meaning at work and what detracts from it. In one example from our research, managers who experience true burnout score a staggering 46 points lower in feeling that their jobs make good use of their skills and abilities.
Learning and career development
Managers and their manager should also consider new projects that can provide a burst of energy at work, have open conversations about what is needed to achieve their goals, and be transparent about potential career paths within the company. Furthermore, the leader of leaders should seek and integrate multiple sources of feedback to get a complete picture of the leader and help target where they need to grow.
Continuing to support flexible working can also give managers a sense of empowerment over their schedule and help reduce feelings of burnout. Managers who experience true burnout score 35 points lower in feeling supported to work in the way that is best for them. A key here is to collaboratively establish team norms and expectations around work schedules so people can work in the way that's best for them without worrying about how their flexibility preferences will affect others. At Microsoft, we have held leadership workshops on how to create effective team agreements.
Psychological safety and support
In our research, managers experiencing burnout do not feel comfortable speaking up. In fact, when Microsoft executives experience true burnout, they score 34 points lower on the sentiment "I feel safe to quit at work" than those who experience no burnout. And they say that their own managers do not support them in prioritizing impactful projects and tasks: managers who experience burnout rate their manager's support in this area 30 points lower than managers who do not experience burnout.
As a manager, don't think you need to hide that you might also need help. Prepare for your one-on-one meetings with your manager and share your priority ideas with them to get their support. Speaking up in a productive way with recommendations and solutions makes room for active dialogue and healthy conversations. As a leader, it is important to be a role model to own up to your own mistakes andnormalizing shows vulnerability, actively invite input from your team, andrespond productivelyto the feedback you receive. This can help build psychological safety on your team and among your leaders.
It is also important to strengthenleaders to take care of themselves, or "put their own oxygen masks on first" before focusing on their team. When leaders first focus on themselves, it is not onlymodels the right behavior, but it also gives them the opportunity to be more present for their employees. At Microsoft, we have created training sessions for managers to learn how to practice self-care and recharge during the day. We also provide quick guides on how to set boundaries and respect others' boundaries, and guides on having these discussions with your teams. Once leaderlearn these skills themselves, they find it easier to encourage their employees to do the same.
For leaders to thrive, organizations must commit to constantly listening to them, acting on feedback and measuring progress. Examining the three burnout dimensions exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy is key to understanding the burnout landscape and determining actions to improve each dimension. The more managers feel they can have an open dialogue with their employer, the richer the feedback loop becomes as organizations work to curb burnout and create a work environment where everyone's energy is sustainable.